Stage Directions

Show, don’t tell.

Show, but don’t tell.

A linguist will tell you (that) conjunctions are often pleonastic, redundant, dispensable. A writer may become emotional about them, he hates conjunctions. Debating their necessity consumes precious polishing time, but he can’t get rid of them.

Sometimes these little beasts are required in order to make the reader understand. More often they are not. Your text loses impact if you use them anyway.

Let me quote the great E.A. Rauter once more, the only one I ever heard using the term “stage directions” connected to writing. Rauter was referring to conjunctions that, in theory, connect clauses and establish a relationship between them.

“Most of all these stage directions suggest to the reader he may be stupid,” Rauter said.

The conjunction imposes an explanation upon the reader. It establishes a direction where the reader could be fascinated by discovering it. “Faszinationsdellen” is another term Rauter coined, fascination dents. That’s what many conjunctions are, missed chances to captivate the audience.

“Some people make headlines, while others make history,” Philip Elmer-DeWitt says. Never quote it that way, erase the stage direction.

“Some people make headlines, others make history,” is what he meant to say.

Pungent honey

“Show, don’t tell.”

Even in Germany the writing teachers say it like this. A fundamental piece of advice, and you couldn’t put it better in Deutsch.

The author still likes to tell, especially about big, dark, loud things. He labels them as “gigantic monsters” and such. But there is hope. After weeks of being confronted with me rewriting his stuff he is developing a feel for sensuality and enjoys to explore it.

“What does this look like?”, “How does that sound?”, “What kind of drink is it?” Questions like these I have to ask less and less, while he catches more and more parts of my writing that lack effort – like the butterfly’s eye on the boy’s defensive sheet that I had failed to describe spot on. He made me write it again.

When he asked about the “pungent honey” I felt embarrassed that I had to look up the term “oxymoron”. But I was happy to see he notices parts like these now and talks about style instead of typos in early drafts. Finally it feels like working together which helps me to commit turning his monster into a beauty.

How to create darkness

“Herbs”, the scrolling author said after a while, his face raising from the screen. He was working on a scene in a temple where the priest burns, well, herbs. “That’s lazy writing, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” I nodded. “Better let your reader smell it.”

We had a good session today. I liked each of his five remarks on the final draft of the third chapter, and he digested most of the few things I said. We had fun making up science fiction herbs, and I learned that “Weihrauch” is the resin of a plant, not the smoke (“Rauch”) of a smouldering herb.

The third chapter begins with a cliche setting. Lost boy alone in the dark forest, followed by 7.000 words – which is the smallest part of what he has handed me. We are three months in now, one million words still to rewrite if things go well.

In the beginning of the chapter he wanted the forest darker and more dramatic. I had tried to achieve exactly that by eliminating his constant reminders of how dark and threatening it is, encouraging the reader’s imagination instead  – show, don’t tell. He liked it but demanded more, so I added detail to the setting without much debate about being overdescriptive.

I feel uncomfortable with the scene either way. It’s not my best work, I’m afraid, right at the beginning of a chapter unfortunately. But with him I have to pick fights carefully in order to not waste too much time. This wasn’t worth it, and, most of all, he may be right. Cliche or not, the forest should be as dark and dangerous as we can make it.